It’s not like he ever really went away, but Billy Joel’s return to the full flush of stardom has become all the more evident with his recent honors, including an ASCAP Centennial Award and the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize. He recently announced further shows in his record-breaking residency at Madison Square Garden, with dates scheduled well into 2015. Accompanying his always robust showing in the marketplace has been a kind of refresher course for former critics, with all manner of influential publications rediscovering an artistry within his songbook that was long taken for granted.
Thus the time seems right for a scan through Joel’s body of work. What follows is just an observer’s opinion of what his best songs are. No doubt there could be many quirkier lineups than this selection of an ultimate, desert island Billy Joel album — and many other possible lists more focused on the bigger hits.
My slate of a dozen personal favorites kicks off only after the early, bittersweet show business tales of “Piano Man” (1974) and “The Entertainer” (1975). I was a bit surprised to see that just six of his 13 albums (that excludes compilations and his classical entry) filled up the dozen cuts. Perhaps that’s because there’s a mutually buoying creative synergy that’s shared among for the tracks on his best albums. As Billy told me in an interview for my Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (Crown Archetype), ever since he became enraptured with the Beatles’ concept albums, he wanted each album’s songs to share a certain musical and lyrical logic. “There was always that opportunity — sometimes it felt like a burden — to have a coherent feel and message…right through [the capstone] River of Dreams, that was the discipline.”
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (Turnstiles, 1976): As he completely inhabits the Wall of Sound production style of Phil Spector (and by extension the vocal throb of singer Ronnie Spector, who would cover the song) Billy scatters autobiographical insights throughout: “He joins the lovers in his heavy machine/Down on Sunset Boulevard” is an emotional Instagram portrait of Billy, wife-to-be Elizabeth, and early manager/believer Jon Troy, who, as the song acknowledges, was “sitting with his back to the wall” and would soon be cashiered out.
“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” (Turnstiles, 1976): The song gains all the more resonance when you add in his subsequent, committed version on 1980’s Songs in the Attic, and also his live take from a Madison Square Garden tribute show just weeks after the cataclysm of 9/11 with the prophetic line, “I watched the mighty skyline fall…”
“I’ve Loved These Days” (Turnstiles, 1976): A Sinatra-esque ballad the New York Times called “emotionally intricate. . .with its beautiful melody and lyrics that incriminate the singer,” this is perhaps the most evocative account of the autumn (“a few more nights on satin sheets”) of Billy’s first great romance (and marriage) with Elizabeth Weber: “I don’t know why I even care/We get so high and get nowhere…”
“Summer Highland Falls” (Turnstiles, 1976) Inside the album’s grander, thumping oratorios at start and finish, this musically canny piece bookends with “I’ve Loved These Days” as a story of love gone too complicated and troubled to redeem: “Now I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes/And I can only stand apart and sympathize…”
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (The Stranger, 1977): This is the song every Joel fan must know from the album every Joel fan must own. It was a modest hit in 1978 but seemed to attack (OK, attack-ack-ack-ack) the airwaves with a rebellious vigor even punk rockers had to acknowledge — if the middle class anti-heroes lying broken in the verses don’t get it, the singer does: “If that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out.”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (The Stranger, 1977) A mini-opera bouffe at 7:37, all about “my sweet romantic teenage nights,” this musical smorgasbord is a concert staple whose narrator will meet you anytime you want over a bottle of (well, you know), as without rancor he tells of the faded golden teens Brenda and Eddie. It’s a fond but dry-eyed paean to the songwriter’s Hicksville roots: “Then the king and the queen went back the green /But you can never go back there again.”
“Allentown” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982) There’s a good case that this is at least tied for best song on Joel’s best album (an assessment that is reflected when he when he grades his own work). With its despairing, sing-song rhythm and well-placed industrial noises, it reveals the anger at the heart of much of his oeuvre. By the closing verses, a generation’s aspirations to do as well as their forebears lays trashed: “But something happened on the way to that place/They threw an American flag in our face…”
“Goodnight Saigon” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982): With its mix of grandeur and grit, and symphonic punch, this song makes a case as the singular popular song to sort through the tragic legacy of the Vietnam War. It was deeply informed by late-night chats with the guys who lived it: “Remember Charlie/Remember Baker/They left their childhood/On every acre…”
“The Longest Time” (An Innocent Man, 1983): Like “Say Goodbye,” a genre song, but wonderfully so — all the doo-wop voices are done by Joel, and although it was done like the rest of the album in the full flush of the Christie romance, the barb of doubt is as usual present: “Who knows how much further we’ll go on/Maybe I’ll be sorry when you’re gone. . .” A Guido jukebox anthem if there ever was one.
“A Matter of Trust” (The Bridge, 1986): Arriving on the album right after the beautifully torchy “This Is the Time,” “Trust” probably Billy’s best gutbucket rocker — and a full-on guitar song (the live version from 1990 at Yankee Stadium is all sweat, shouts and heavy-duty riffing). The inamorata is invited to “break my heart if you must” but a love-struck courage prevails: “I won’t hold back anything/And I’ll walk away a fool or a king.”
“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” (River of Dreams, 1993): Perhaps his most intimate piece of writing and singing. It’s got the maritime references, the personal pedigree — forthrightly composed and performed for his daughter when his marriage with Christie was slowly headed for the rocks — and one of his prettiest melodies movingly conveyed by an understated performance.
“The River of Dreams” (River of Dreams, 1993): In which the existential agonies of career and life meet the realities of having had one’s final say in song. For one more time, musical magpie Joel draws on his deep knowledge of American vernacular music, using gospel-tinged choruses to express an ultimate loneliness — “And I’ve been searching for something/Taken out of my soul” — that is somehow redeemed by the act of naming it. “The river runs to the promised land,” he proclaims, even if that’s hard to believe “In the middle of the night.”